The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

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Review by Terence Hallett

This is an intriguing but also frustrating book.  I did wonder if the Shiny editors would allow me to write two alternative reviews.  The first would start:

This is a very engaging and innovative murder mystery and I kept getting surprises.  It was also moving, touching, and occasionally rather distressing. But the progress of the story is rapid – the reader needs to be on their toes – and the denouement satisfying and exciting.

But there are definitely issues with how it is put together, and my alternative review would start:

There is a really good idea at the heart of this book, but it is so frustrating to read, and there are a number of techniques and tropes which are irritating, oft repeated, and don’t actually seem very relevant to the story. The story itself abounds in cliches and much of the plot development is pretty easy to foresee, or at least it doesn’t surprise and excite, being rather pedestrian.

What can reconcile these? Perhaps some of it is that the best ideas wear thin with too frequent repetition, and some of the ideas, while wacky and innovative, don’t seem central or even functional. But part of it may merely be the different moods of the reader and sometimes one is frustrated and even a bit bored by something, but later it is seen to have a value and an importance which was not initially apparent. In the tradition of Oxford essays, this would get the fabled mark alpha/gamma??  

The structure of the book is straightforward but unsettling: the majority of the book is set of audio files (a kind of spoken diary) recovered from the phone of a recently reported missing person, sent by Inspector Waliso to a Professor Mansfield for his expert opinion.  You know nothing more of these two characters until you have read all the messages, which fill over 300 pages; the rest, a relatively short section, is Professor Mansfield groping towards the true story that they tell.

Reading these files is incredibly frustrating, at least I found them so, because the author, Steven Smith, skipped most of his education and is still semi-literate (he learned to read to a basic level in prison), and the transcriptions reflect that, with multiple repeated misspellings, misunderstandings and so on, which seems really weird.  The speaker might have said “”If I’m gun a do this …” instead of “If I’m going to do this ..”, but why would the transcription capture it, every time?  Or “are E” for “RE” (remedial english)? Or missiles for Miss Isles, his teacher? But …

Reading these files is a really brilliant insight into their author and his worries (they are addressed to his probation officer, Maxine). You learn his history, his phobias and pride, his social insecurity and financial ambition, about his relationships and his anger, and you learn about his isolation from society because of his poor education, family break up, and long history of criminality and prison. It’s moving and funny, and it tells two interlinked and intriguing stories.

The first is the story of his life, his adoption by a criminal gang, and his involvement in a major crime which went wrong, landing him in prison, from which he has only just been released on probation, the terms of which he has generally been keeping but, because of his involvement in the second story, he starts to break consistently and completely.

And the second story is the story of his teacher, Miss Isles, and her attempt to crack  the code in a series of children’s books by Edith Twyford, now (at the time of the story, many years after he left school) dead. Her books are out of favour, but they are clearly Enid Blyton in style, long on adventure and patriotism, short on social awareness or inclusivity. And Miss Isles disappears – is killed? – when following up the trail. So Smith is now following up the same code, trying to solve the murder, as he sees it, of his teacher, and the mystery she never solved.  Was Twyford a traitor selling secrets to the Germans? Or a patriotic undercover operator, working against the Germans? Is there a treasure, or just a mystery?  Things get more complicated when Smith gets different versions of his own history from ex-school friends, and when with the help of a local librarian, he discovers that the books are still being printed, and more recent editions have been changed – not just for political correctness reasons, but to update the code!

He is reading Edith Twyford’s Six on Goldtop Hill, and here are some of his impressions; as you can tell, the speaker’s naivety comes and goes, and the author sometimes forgets how poorly the character should speak – but it’s still effective:

Turns out these kids with Latin names DO have an adventure when they go camping on Goldtop Hill. There’s contra being stashed in an old aircraft hangar, probably by the local firm. From the illustrations alone I could’ve told them it’s a stupid place. It’s in view of a popular campsite at the end of a single track road, along which a lot of residents with time on their hands can see who comes and goes.

The secret to concealment is movement .. keep your contra on the move. Sounds riskier but in the long run minimises the likelhood of discovery, plus you can change and limit the number of folk who know where it’s kept.  In this whole book it doesn’t say what the contra is. This is a kids’ book essentially so, I don’t know, maybe weed or side arms? In short, I’ve read it from cover to cover, words and pictures, and I’m none the wiser as to why missiles. Why she. Why missiles didn’t come back that day.

Possible interpretations multiply, and Steven Smith comes to doubt the integrity of many people he thinks are helping him, and himself becomes the target of mysterious figures who seem bent on stopping him, by any means at all, getting at the truth – if indeed there is any truth to get at. Eventually, we get to the professor’s analysis, and this is where we get some understanding of what has been going on, both in the Twyford world and in Steve Smith’s investigation of it, and the conclusion is ingenious and tightly worked out. I am reluctant to say anything more about the nature of the solution, for obvious reasons, but the ending is satisfying, complex and pleasing. If you think you can put up with the peculiar orthography of the transcripts, this will be an engaging read.

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Janice Hallett, The Twyford Code (Viper, 2022). 978-1788165310, 359pp, hardback.

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